Urban Wire Why the increasing state prison population should not have come as a surprise
Ryan King, Brian Elderbroom
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The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) announced on Tuesday that the national prison population increased during 2013, breaking a streak of three straight years of decline. This sudden about-face caught many off guard. However, a deeper dive into the data suggests that maybe we should have been prepared for this sobering news.

Particularly noteworthy is that the states, not the federal system, were the primary driver of the population increase. In recent years, states have led the way in downsizing their prison populations, while the federal system lagged behind.

Across the nation, states have revised sentencing laws, cut down on revocations from community supervision, and invested in a range of innovative, evidence-based policies that held the promise of reducing the size of the correctional population, saving states money, and protecting public safety. We in the justice policy community watched with great hope as the states seemed to be rejecting the “tough on crime” policies that defined the 1980s and 1990s and, instead, sought strategies that were “smart on crime.”

And the early returns gave us reason to be hopeful. After nearly 40 years of unabated growth, the state prison population declined in 2010. Admissions to prison began to decline in 2007, and the number of people leaving prison annually exceeded those entering beginning in 2009 until 2013.

These trends occurred during a period when crime remained at historic lows not witnessed since the 1960s. It seemed possible that we were entering a new era of prison reform – one that might finally get the United States in line with the rest of the world. But in 2013, these trends reversed. State prison admissions increased by 4.5 percent and releases dropped by 2.1 percent.

We may have been celebrating too early. Here’s where we need to shift our focus to make a meaningful and sustainable reduction in the number of people in prison.

Too much weight was given to national numbers

While national numbers are symbolically important, the number of people in prison is inherently a function of policy and practice in each state. While the overall state prison population declined by 3.9 percent between 2009 and 2012, the number of people in prison actually increased in 24 states. Two-thirds of the national decline was due to a reduction in California’s prison population resulting from “realignment,” which redirects persons convicted of nonviolent, non-sex, and non-serious offenses to the counties.

Indeed, larger states have a disproportionate impact on the national numbers. In 2013, 27 states reported an increase in their prison population, contributing to a net increase of 6,300. Four states alone (Arkansas, California, Florida, and Texas) grew by more than 7,000 prisoners.

The reality is that some states are doing better than others, and the gains that have been made are tenuous at best.

Recent policy reforms are only the first step

While a necessary first step in rejecting the “tough on crime” policies of the past, reforms targeting people who have been convicted of nonviolent offenses are not sufficient to effect deep and sustainable reductions in the prison population.

Make no mistake, policies targeting community supervision and the sentencing of low-level drug and property offenses have likely contributed to the recent declines in some state prison populations and addressed some longstanding racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system. But significant reductions will require policymakers to consider the entire population in prison.

For starters, most current reform efforts do not even apply to the majority of sentenced inmates. In 2011, slightly more than half (53 percent) of people in state prison were serving a sentence for a violent offense, up from 45 percent in 1991. This does not include people in prison whose most recent conviction was for a nonviolent offense, but who have a prior conviction for a violent crime, have had their sentence enhanced as a result, and may be ineligible for certain reforms aimed at reducing length of stay.

People in prison for violent offenses have been the primary driver of the prison population over the last decade, accounting for 80 percent of growth between 2001 and 2011. During this period, the number of people serving a state prison sentence for a violent offense increased by 17 percent, while property offenses increased by less than 1 percent and drug offenses actually declined by 12 percent.

Recent trends in prison admissions suggest that violent offenses will continue to be the major driver of the population. In fact, two-thirds of the decline in overall admissions to prison between 2006 and 2011 was due to a drop in drug offenses, while admissions to prison for violent offenses have remained flat.

Again, an emphasis on expanding alternatives to incarceration for drug offenses is a critical first step to reducing mass incarceration. But these reforms must be put in the proper perspective—sizable reductions cannot be achieved without taking a hard look at those serving the longest prison sentences.

Moving forward, we need to tackle long prison sentences and time served

The nature of an offense should not prevent us from subjecting sentence length and time served to the same cost-benefit analysis that we currently apply to many drug and property crimes. How much more public safety benefit does an additional day, week, month or year in prison provide? This is a critical question because people serving long sentences in prison “stack up” and make it difficult to achieve sustainable reductions in the prison population.

The best research has failed to find a significant impact of longer prison sentences on future criminal offending. The evolving consensus is that criminal offending is not deterred by the severity of the punishment (sentence length), but rather the certainty and swiftness of receiving a sanction. In fact, much of the current policy conversation is focused not on making punishment harsher, but improving the efficiency of the criminal justice system in order to increase the certainty of apprehension and punishment.

However, the focus of policies designed to instill swift and certain sanctions have been limited to nonviolent offenses. States should subject length of stay to the same scrutiny they are currently giving the decision about whether an individual should receive an incarceration or community-based sanction. The lessons learned for drug and property offenses should also be applied to violent offenses and people serving long sentences.

For example, analyses of release cohorts in Florida, Maryland, and Michigan found that thousands of people in prison for nonviolent offenses could have been released from prison earlier with little impact on public safety. Expanding these types of analyses to violent offenders could help build the case for reforms targeting a broader swath of the prison population.

The biggest reductions can be found among individuals serving the longest sentences. This population, which has been completely ignored by recent reforms, holds the promise of dramatically reducing the prison population without posing a threat to public safety.

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Photo: A California state prison. (AP Photo/California Department of Corrections, File)

Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety
Tags Corrections Courts and sentencing Crime and justice analytics Policing and community safety
Policy Centers Justice Policy Center